‘Cause It Matters — Volunteering

They don’t do it for the fame, they don’t do it for the money. Our artisans aren’t just ridiculously talented, they’re also kindhearted. This column is all about the personal commitments to social causes of people like Stephanie Verge, a content creator at Sid Lee Montreal. She shares how volunteering her time to alleviate loneliness among the elderly has resulted in a cherished friendship.


Can you please provide a summary of your good deed?
Each week, I spend time with Mr. Gagnon, whom I met through an organization called Les Petits Frères that works to alleviate social isolation and loneliness among elderly people lacking support networks. He and I chat, drink tea, eat club sandwiches, watch baseball, read the paper, listen to old records, dance. We’ll scour the Internet for French cabaret classics and selections from the Great American Songbook. If I haven’t already transcribed the lyrics of a song that’s caught his ear, I’ll jot them down in a notebook so he can have them on hand. Music always tells a story—I know that for him, born at the beginning of the Great Depression and now the last surviving member of his family, melodies are filled with memories.


What sparked your interest in this cause?
I am used to being around older people—my sisters and I are the only “children” in our extended family. With the average age of my aunts, uncles, parents and stepparents now sitting at around 80, I’m aware of the resources and care available to the elderly. Mr. Gagnon may be alone now, but he was once surrounded by people who loved him. One of the goals of Les Petits Frères is to ensure that older people are supported until their final days. That’s why I first got involved—no one deserves to age or pass away in isolation. But I remain involved as much for myself as for Mr. Gagnon—we’re a little family now.


How did you first get involved?
In 2015, I was volunteering with an LGBTQ2+ organization that works with youth. I loved it, but realized I also wanted to do something related to the other end of the age spectrum. The week I started searching for opportunities, I spotted a car with the Les Petits Frères logo on it. Curious about the name, I checked out their website. It was exactly what I was looking for. It was fate!


What is the most worrisome and most hopeful fact about your cause?
According to StatCan data, there are now more Canadians over the age of 65 than there are under the age of 15—and these numbers are rising quickly. A decade from now, nearly one in four Canadians will be a senior. Many of them will face loneliness due to the loss of loved ones and the loss of autonomy. Studies worryingly show that isolation is a risk factor associated with depression and even suicide. But I feel a bit better when I look at how many people are involved with Les Petits Frères: an average of 15,000 visits are made each year across Quebec to “Elder Friends” in their homes, seniors’ residences or hospital rooms.


Which organization working to improve the reality of your cause is your favourite?
Les Petits Frères, obviously. Fondation Émergence also has a long-standing initiative called “Pour que vieillir soit gai” (French only), which raises awareness about the rights and realities of LGBTQ2+ seniors and works to help the places serving those communities become more inclusive.


Which brands do you think are doing their part when it comes to this cause?
Marketing aimed at and about seniors is generally very poor. (Check out this Fast Company article for some insight into the matter.) Compounding that is our culture’s general discomfort with aging and its accompanying issues, like loneliness and depression. I’d love to see brands engaging more with this issue. That said, Revera does have a Chief Elder Officer—the indefatiguable Hazel McCallion—who is anything but isolated.


How can everyone increase their understanding of this cause and make a difference?
Start by really talking to the elderly people in your family or social circle. Ask them about their experiences when they’re on their own and when they’re out in the world. Try to keep in mind that someone’s potential physical frailty doesn’t dictate their level of interest in what’s going on around them or their ability to engage. Focus on their personhood and the ways in which you could connect with them.


How can people join the movement (donating, contributing time, spreading awareness, etc.)?
Beyond Les Petits Frères, there are a ton of organizations that work with seniors. Consider volunteering with or donating to community centres, hospitals, eldercare centres, hospices and food delivery services. They are always looking for people to join committees, work in the kitchen, staff their boutiques, drive patients to appointments, make home visits, plan special events and participate in end-of-life care.


Which book, movie, podcast, Instagram account, etc., can you recommend to gain more insight into this cause?
Marguerite (2017), which you can watch here, is about the relationship between an elderly woman in Quebec and her home-care nurse. It was nominated for an Oscar in the Best Live Action Short Film category and stars Béatrice Picard, who just happens to be the spokesperson for Les Petits Frères.

Directed by the legendary documentarian Allan King, Memory for Max, Claire, Ida and Company (2005) shares the stories of eight seniors in various stages of cognitive decline living at Toronto’s Baycrest Health Sciences, an international leader in geriatric care and residential living.

Chinese-American director Lulu Wang’s The Farewell (2019) is a bit different, told from the point of the view of a granddaughter rather than her dying grandmother. It deals as much with identity and filial duty as it does age, but it’s a finely drawn exploration of the power of intergenerational bonds at the end of one’s life.